What is the big deal about Mikimoto? Surely you have heard his name. In the pearl business buyers love to throw around the Mikimoto name… especially by saying things like, “my Mikimoto’s” Other people have no clue …”miki-what?” So, I am here to tell you the big deal with Mikimoto!
What is in a Name?
Some people will always refer to their copy machine as a Xerox. Why? It is the OLDEST name in copy machines. So, even if it is not a Xerox by brand name… it is a xerox machine! We search for something by googling even if we don’t always use Google! Do you catch my drift? Old or popular names can set the standard. And the oldest name in cultured pearls is Mikimoto.
Picture it, historically people had experienced with manipulating oysters to produce pearls. They even have record of this from China many years before the common era. Why not? Pretty much everyone has agreed that pearls are worthy of their high value and therefore worth reproducing. If only people could figure out a consistent way to do it!
It was Mikimoto Kokichi who really put it all out there to actually start a cultured pearl farm in 1888. The son of a noodle maker, he and his wife were entrepreneurs, fabulous marketers and maybe just a little bit socialist. Okay, I made that last part up! But, Mikimoto did believe that all women should own a strand of pearls. Pearls for the people! And although we usually do nether muchOther scientists and entrepreneurs were working on culturing pearls at the time but he did the work and bought the patents from the work of other scientists. By 1893 he had his first cultured pearl. By the early 1900s he was actually able to culture a round cultured pearl. And things really took off from there.
Leonard Rosenthal wrote an autobiography titled, The Pearl Hunter. As a pearl seller in France in the early 1900s he was wowed by the first cultured pearls he encountered. But, what a shock to his business! Imagine, up until the point that Mikimoto started culturing gem quality pearls, the only pearls available in the market were natural pearls. A natural pearl is a pearl spontaneously produced by nature. They are rarer and therefore they are a lot more expensive than their cultured pearl counterparts. So, when cultured pearl entered the scene they were gorgeous pearls and they were a lot cheaper and usually rounder than natural pearls. (In general, I generally think of cultured pearls more predictable than natural pearls). The natural pearl industry collapsed!
So, back to Mikimoto. Another big deal about Mikomoto is that he is THE guy behind today’s phenomena of cultured pearls. What else? He caused major waves in the pearl industry. First, he angered a lot of people. Picture it, natural pearls were being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Remember The Great Gatsby? Fitzgerald writes, “he bought her a string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.” This was 1919 and Tom gave Daisy a strand of pearls on their wedding night. Guess what? These were not cultured pearls! Those pearls, which would be the equivalent of $4.7M by today’s standards, were natural pearls. And that isn’t fictional fabrication. Natural pearls were being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the early 1900s.
So, what happened to the eponymous Mikimoto after he essentially killed the natural pearl industry? He was sued! That’s right! He showed up on the pearl scene with his cultured pearls and those dealers of natural pearls took him to court. How appalling that these pearls were upsetting their business! And that is how we have the term “cultured pearl.” He was forced to give his pearls a name that distinguished them from natural pearls, also simply known as “pearls”. So, he was ordered to call them “cultured pearls.”
Nowadays, people use it as a badge of honor to guarantee that pearls are not fake. I get asked all the time, “Are these cultured pearls?” What people are really asking is, are these real or fake? But, originally, the term was meant to indicate that the pearls were not natural pearls. So a cultured pearl, among some circles, were considered a bad thing, not a good thing!
Goodbye Pearl Divers
What else did Mikimoto do? He is a big deal because he put a whole lot of pearl divers out of business. The Persian Gulf was known for their natural pearls and divers were diving consistently for pearls. When cultured pearls flooded the market, the demand for natural pearls fell drastically and many people in the natural pearl industry lost their means and livelihood. For one, the divers in the Persian Gulf lost their jobs.
So, who has Mikimoto pearls? Well, lots of people from the WWII generation. After the second world war when the Allied forces occupied Japan, they feared an illegal pearl trade. So, pearls sales were discouraged within Japan. Instead, the Japanese sold pearls in military stores frequented by Allied troops. See more on my post: Why does your grandmother have graduated pearls?
Because Mikimoto has the name recognition, many people are drawn to the Mikimoto pearls. I remember asking my first pearl professor at the Gemological Institute of America why Mikimoto pearls are so expensive and she said, simply, “the name.”
In the 1980s, I traveled to Japan with my family and my Dad bought my first strand of pearls. My father, of course, thought that he needed to buy Mikimoto’s. But, the Japanese people assured him there are many gorgeous pearls that do not have the Mikimoto name or signature clasp. I have since thought about that transaction. Would I love my pearls more if they were from Mikimoto? Not likely. Would they be considered more valuable now if they bore the Mikimoto name? Possibly! Names matter to many people, especially in the resellers market.
Here is another thing to consider. Would I be able to tell if you had Mikimoto pearls if you did not have the signature clasp on your necklace? Probably not. Mikimoto is a movement, it is a name, it is a high quality pearl. it is not necessarily the best quality name although some might argue that point with me. The only reason I say it is not the best is that Mikimoto is a brand name, and one that has grown and grown varied.
I had an Australian customer reach out to The Pearl Girls about her Mikimotos. Her mother had purchased a strand many years prior and had the signature clasp removed. She had the paperwork from Mikimoto but the pearls did not hold the same value without the clasp. When she contacted the Mikimoto company they quoted her AU$750 to buy a clasp and have it added to her necklace. She wanted to know if it was worth it. I advised her to go for it. The value of Mikimoto is in the name. She wanted the name so she had to pay for the clasp.
I also wonder if the reverse is possible. When I see lots of Mikimotos on sale on eBay, I wonder if anyone ever copies those clasps and adds them to strands of pearls. I have traveled extensively through China and I have seen Tiffany jewelry sold on the street for $5-$10, box included. So, it doesn’t seem that far off to have knock off Mikimotos.
Nowadays, Mikimoto no longer have their own pearl farms. Instead, Mikimoto buys beautiful pearls from other pearl farms. Mikimoto also has quite a different variety of pearls under various subsets of the name Mikimoto. This is what I mean by seeing the Mikimoto brand grow and grow varied. The Pearl Girls repair department has restrung many of these pearls and they range from amazingly beautiful to gorgeously fake. So, to say that Mikimoto pearls are the very best does not always feel true.
But it would be impossible to imagine a pearl industry without Mikimoto. Although Mikimoto, the man, died in 1954, his brand name lives on. Mikimoto will always carry the legacy as the founder of our modern-day cultured pearls. Good or bad, expensive or overpriced, there are many reasons and perspectives on why Mikimoto was, and remains to be, a big deal.
If you have Mikimotos, wear them with pride!